New Zealand: Glacier Country

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From Hokitika we continued to head South along Highway 6 towards Fox Glacier.  A visit to  New Zealand’s West Coast isn’t complete without a trip to one of the two glaciers found there – Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. The topography in this area is unique with glaciers and ice surrounded by lush, green forest covered with ferns and mosses. Also, both glaciers are located only a mere 300 meters above sea level.

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Accommodation: Gillespie Beach is hands down, the highest rated camp site in the area.  Before coming here, I read about how this quiet secluded beach has the perfect view of the surrounding mountains.  The site is located about 30 minutes drive from the township of Fox Glacier through a windy and narrow road.  Normally on a good day, this small campsite is packed with campervans, but when we were there, the place was almost empty.

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Undeterred by the rain and clouds, we decided to go for a walk down by the desolate pebbled beach.  From there you can hike to Galway beach to see an indigenous seal colony. Before you set out, however, make sure you check the notice board for the conditions of the path.  While we were there, the tunnel to Galway Beach was flooded and not safe to pass.  We continued to walk along the water, hoping to get a glimpse of the majestic mountains looming overhead, but all we saw were grey skies.  We walked for about an hour before it started drizzling, and then pouring.

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The relentless rain and wind beat down on top of our car, trapping us inside.  The rhythmic pounding and shaking sounded like machine gun from the inside.  Since we couldn’t even go outside to cook, we decided to bring the camp stove inside and made instant noodles for dinner. We made ourselves warm and comfortable while the the storm continued to rage outside.

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In the morning, we woke up to  overcast skies and more rain.  During the night, the storm managed to knock down some trees, blocking the single lane road, trapping us at the beach.  Luckily the rangers were very responsive and about an hour and a half later, they managed to remove the obstacle and we were on our way.

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The deteriorating weather conditions once again forced us to change plans.  Instead of staying a night like we originally planned, we extended our stay, hoping that the clouds would clear up, and we would be able to take a helicopter ride to Fox Glacier. On the second night we decided to stay closer to town, at Fox Glacier Lodge Car Park. We paid $20 NZD per person for a powered site.

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[photo credit: fox guides.co.nz]

Heli HikingThis was the one thing I knew I wanted to do in New Zealand.  Not having seen a glacier before, the chance to walk on one is an experience I did not want to miss.  We booked with Flying Fox Heli Hike, a tour that includes helicopter flights to a remote part of the glacier, a professional guide to explore the amazing formations and ice caves.  They also provide warm jackets, leather boots,  and crampons, the equipment needed to explore the glacier safely.  The heli hiking tour lasts 4 hours with approximately 2.5 hours on the ice and costs $429 NZD per person.

Unfortunately the weather had other ideas for us.  It was not safe for the helicopter to take off and navigate in the low hanging clouds.  Even though we extended our stay, it was not meant to be.  Here are a list of the other activities we did do around the glacier:

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Glacier Hot PoolsAfter getting discouraged about the cancelled heli-hiking tour, we agreed to find something else to do.  Instead of sitting around moping, we decided to drive back to Franz Josef Glacier and spend our afternoon relaxing in the glacier hot pools.  They are located in the township of Franz Josef nestled in the lush, natural rainforest of the area.  Their proximity to both glaciers made it the perfect place to  unwind after a physically taxing day, but in our case it was a nice way to waste a rainy afternoon.

There are three public hot pools with temps ranging from 36 – 40 degrees Celsius. The complex is well designed, incorporating the natural elements with the man-made pools, creating a relaxing environment.  Even though the pool is man-made, the pure water is actually fed from the Franz Josef Glacier.  The entrance fee is $27 per person, but it was worth the money because we felt a thousand times better after a good soak.

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Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk –  Feeling refreshed after the hot  pool, we decided to do the Glacier Valley walk.  Franz Josef Glacier is one of the world’s fastest moving glaciers thanks partly to the huge snowfall it receives each year. It is constantly advancing and retreating over the seasons; and about 18,000 years ago, Franz stretched all the way to the Tasman Sea, but now it is found about 5 km outside of Franz Josef Village. Before heading out, make sure you check the weather conditions and read all the DOC signs carefully. Heavy rain or snow can cause rockfall, flooding, and landslides making the path impassible. There are guided tours costing about $50 NZD per person if you are uncomfortable going alone.

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The 3 km return route follows the riverbed along the glacier valley and takes about an hour and a half.  The walk through the forest to the first viewpoint is wide and carefully graded. From here, you can catch a first glimpse of the Franz Josef Glacier. Continue to follow the trail up the Waiho riverbed where you’ll pass the Trident Falls. Once you cross the moving river, you’ll have to scramble up the rocks to get to the lookout point where you can finally see the terminal face of the glacier.  From this point, the enormous wall of blue ice looks like polished marble. You can also see the crevasses the ice has ripped apart. There are many warning signs to stay behind the barriers since the area is unstable and people have gotten hurt and even killed from falling rocks.IMG_4055_thumb.jpg

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Even though we were not ON the glacier like we had first envisioned, it was nice to be able to see it from afar.  Even without the glacier, the walk is quite spectacular with looming mountains, waterfalls and rainforest.

Minnehaha Glowworm WalkAfter our disappointing glow worm walk in Punakaiki, I was excited to find another glow worm grotto in Fox Glacier.  We headed out when it got dark, following the trail along the stream into the moss strewn forest.  The glow worms can be seen on tree trunks, but they are quite skittish and would immediately hide if there are any loud noises or lights. Glow worms use their glowing lights to bewitch small insects and ensnare them in their sticky threads.

We brought a small torch to scan the path and made sure we didn’t inadvertently fall into a ditch. Once inside the forest, we turned off the lights and stood quietly in the dark, and that’s when we started to notice the twinkly lights. They are not that strong, so you have to look hard.  It’s such a cool experience and reminds me of the scene in movie Avatar with the glowing flowers from the trees of life. We stood there as the forest came alive.

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Lake Matheson – I’d seen pictures of Lake Matheson and its famous reflection before coming to New Zealand, but no words or pictures can do this experience justice. It’s so breathtaking, you just want to stand back in silence and take in the view.  It’s not hard to see why Lake Matheson is the most iconic lake in New Zealand. On a clear day, you can see  Mt Cook and Mt Tasman perfectly reflected on the calm, mirrored surface of the lake.  The lake was formed about 14,000 years ago, when the Fox Glacier retreated and left a basin which was later filled with water.

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Lake Matheson is located just 6km west of the town of Fox Glacier, in the middle of farmland where cows and sheep roam.  From the parking lot, the path takes 40 minutes to get to the lookout point and back or 1.5 hours to do the full loop.  The easy track takes you across a suspension bridge, through a native forest full of rimu and kahikatea trees, to a viewing platform that has the perfect view of the lake and mountains.

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We ended up coming here twice, the first time was in the early afternoon, but we couldn’t even see the reflection due to wind and the low hanging clouds obscuring the views of the mountain.  We were disappointed, thinking that this place was overrated.  Luckily, we decided to return on the second day in the early morning where we finally saw the view that everyone was raving about.  What a difference a day makes.

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Information Round-up:

  • Distance: 320 km from Hokitika to Fox Glacier
  • #Nights: 2
  • Accommodation: Gillespie Beach – $0 NZD and Fox Glacier Lodge Car Park – $20 NZD per person
  • Activities:
    • Glow Worm Dell: Free
    • Lake Matheson: Free
    • Franz Josef Glacier Walk: Free
    • Glacier Hot Tub: $27 NZD per person
    • Heli Hiking Fox Glacier: $429 NZD per person
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